Mario Lio

Mario Lio. Photo by Noah Berger

Out of the shadows

As a project engineer for Rebarber Enterprises — a South San Francisco-based construction equipment subcontractor — Mario Lio (B.S.’10 CEE) is enjoying professional success as a Berkeley Engineering graduate. Yet Lio’s path to achievement has been anything but easy. For most of his life, he had been largely living under the radar as an undocumented immigrant. But now, his story is one made possible by President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, which was enacted in 2012 to offer temporary permission to stay in the U.S. for certain immigrants who came here as children.

Living in the shadows

My dad explained to me what it would mean to be undocumented,” he remembers. “I’d have to live ‘in the shadows’ — to come home early and not be seen outside a lot.

Born in Peru, Lio was no stranger to immigration struggles. His father is a Chinese national who held both Chinese and Peruvian passports; his mother a native Peruvian. They divorced when Lio was young. When his father traveled back to China, authorities demanded he choose between Chinese and Peruvian citizenship. Lio’s father chose to stay in China and has been unable to leave ever since. “It’s not just the U.S. that has a broken immigration system,” says Lio.

At age 12, Lio came to the U.S. to visit relatives in Daly City over summer break. Peru’s summer falls during the U.S. winter, so his aunt and uncle enrolled Lio in the local middle school. By the end of the month, Lio was doing so well in his new environment that they asked if he’d like to stay until the end of the academic year — legally, he was eligible to stay up to six months.

By the next school year, Lio had made friends and wanted to continue his education in California, but he also understood the possible consequences of overstaying his visa. “My dad explained to me what it would mean to be undocumented,” he remembers. “I’d have to live ‘in the shadows’ — to come home early and not be seen outside a lot.”

In middle school, Lio succeeded academically and socially, but things changed in high school. “I saw my friends getting driver’s licenses and after-school jobs; they were maturing, but I felt stunted. I had to hide why I couldn’t take driver’s ed or get a job. I wasn’t able to foster any self-esteem or confidence.”

Near graduation in 2006, Lio learned about AB-540, the California law that allows undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition to state universities if they have graduated from a California high school after attending for at least three years. They remain ineligible for state and federal financial aid, however, and most scholarships require a Social Security number. No one at Lio’s school had ever encountered a college-bound undocumented student before, but a sympathetic humanities teacher and school counselor took on the cause. They found the few exceptions, and Lio ended up accruing $15,000 in scholarships.

With his limited English, math was an area in which Lio felt he could excel, and he set his sights on engineering, architecture or design. What he lacked in confidence he made up for in determination, and he was accepted to Berkeley, becoming the first in his family to go to college.

Before he started at Berkeley in the fall, Lio attended the college’s Multicultural Engineering Program summer boot camp (now PREP), a 10-day program for underrepresented and first-generation college students. He found more connections by joining Hispanic Engineers and Scientists and NERDS (New Experiences for Research and Diversity in Science).

“The classes were very challenging, and I was surrounded by super-bright people,” says Lio. “I may have been the best at my high school, but not against this demographic.” Eventually, the tables turned: he ended up teaching a student-run DeCal course on “Surviving Berkeley Engineering” to incoming students.

Civil and environmental engineering professor Shaofan Li recalls Lio as a student who often came to his office to discuss coursework. “I remember thinking that this young man was going to do something in life,” he says. “As an immigrant myself, I recognize the motivation that has propelled Lio to work hard to realize his American dream.”

Doors open overnight
After graduating in 2010, Lio tried saving up for graduate school with a variety of jobs that didn’t require a work permit — tutor, canvasser, academic mentor, cook, dishwasher — but couldn’t get a career job. He enrolled at CSU East Bay and got a master’s degree in construction management.

Once DACA was enacted in late 2012, Lio says, “Doors opened overnight.” He got a Social Security card, a work permit and driver’s license. He applied for jobs in his field, and in May 2013, Rebarber Enterprises hired him as a project engineer. Lio was initially fearful about “coming out” to his employer about his immigration status but, after a journalist from the Wall Street Journal approached him last fall for a story about DACA, he decided to speak out. “My initial emotion was fear, but then I thought, why not?” he remembers. “And my boss’s reaction was completely positive.”

Becoming a whole person again
Lio’s family continues to be affected by immigration issues: He hasn’t seen his father in 10 years, and his mother visits every other year but is unable to make the move permanent. His older brother, Carlos, initially wanted to follow in Mario’s footsteps, but seeing the challenges he faced, decided against it.

Looking back on his immigration journey, Lio says, “I feel like I’ve fully recovered my confidence. I’m able to talk with clients and colleagues and defend my opinions and expertise. My Berkeley education was a big part of that evolution for me.”

Grateful for the opportunities offered to him, Lio has already begun paying it forward. He has started a scholarship fund at Rebarber Enterprises — with his employer matching his own contributions — to support students pursuing careers in construction, engineering or architecture, with the hope that he can smooth the path for future students who face such challenging obstacles as his own.

Inspired by Mario Lio, Rebarber Enterprises is sponsoring a $1,000 scholarship for a deserving student wishing to pursue a career in the construction management industry. For details, email Mario (mario@rebarber.net) or find the application here. Students of color, women, disabled, LGBT, AB-540, DACA recipients, and other minorities are encouraged to apply.